Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[...] these rebel powers that thee array;
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
The speaker addresses this poem to his soul, asking it in the first stanza why it, the center of his “sinful earth” (that is, his body), endures misery within his body while he is so concerned with maintaining its “paint[ed]” outward appearance—that is, why his soul allows his exterior vanity to wound its interior life. He asks his soul why, since it will not spend long in the body (“having so short a lease” in the “fading mansion”), it spends “so large cost” to decorate it, and he asks whether worms shall be allowed to eat the soul’s “charge” after the body is dead. In the third quatrain, the speaker exhorts his soul to concentrate on its own inward well-being at the expense of the body’s outward walls (“Let that [i.e., the body] pine to aggravate [i.e., increase] thy store”). He says that the body’s hours of “dross” will buy the soul “terms divine”; and admonishes the soul to be fed within, and not to be rich without. In the couplet, the speaker tells the soul that by following his advice, it will feed on death, which feeds on men and their bodies; and once it has fed on death, it will enjoy eternal life: “And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.”
Sonnet 146, an austerely moralizing self-exhortation to privilege the inner enrichment of the soul over the outer decoration of the body, is also the site of the most virulent textual controversy of any of Shakespeare’s poem in the sequence. The way the poem is printed in its first edition, its first two lines read: Poor soule, the center of my sinfull earth, My sinfull earth these rebbel poweres that thee array.... The repetition of the phrase “my sinful earth” at the start of the second line has long been chalked up to a printer’s mistake; it almost certainly could not have been Shakespeare’s intention to break his meter so egregiously for the sake of such a heavy-handed repetition. (In the 1590s, any text that was to be printed had to be set into the printing press letter by letter, a painstaking and often mind-numbing process that resulted in many mistakes of this nature.) As a result, critics have debated for what seems the better part of four centuries over what the “missing” text might have been. “Trapp’d by these rebel powers”? “Ring’d” by them? “Fenced”? “Foil’d”? “Pressed with”? Possible alternatives are literally endless; most recent editors of the sonnets have avoided conjecture for that very reason.
Apart from the textual controversy, Sonnet 146 presents the relatively simple idea that the body exists at the expense of the soul, so that decorating or adorning the body, or even worrying about its beauty, can only be accomplished at the soul’s expense. The speaker of this sonnet feels trapped by his preoccupation with his outward appearance, and urges himself—by addressing his neglected soul, which he concedes has the decision-making power over the body—to neglect the body as a way to enrich the soul and help it toward heaven (“Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross”). In this sense, Sonnet 146 is one of comparatively few sonnets to strike a piously religious tone: in its overt concern with heaven, asceticism, and the progress of the soul, it is quite at odds with many of the other sonnets, which yearn for and celebrate sensory beauty and aesthetic pleasure.
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